Visiting the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
When I was in high school one of my teachers told the class about a trip he took to visit the oldest tree in the world. Thinking it must be far away I was shocked when he told us that it was located right in California. At the time I couldn’t believe that such a thing was found in my home state and I resolved to visit it one day. Last fall, that day finally came when I paid a visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in Inyo County.
You may recall that in my Death Valley post I mentioned that Inyo county was home to both the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) point in the US. It certainly is a place of extremes because it’s also home to the world’s oldest trees, including Methuselah which is nearly 5000 years old and dates to 2831 BC. Nestled high in the White Mountains, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest contains some of the most unique trees in the entire world.
Bristlecone pine trees are located in only a few spots in the Western US and are not your typical pine trees…you’d never want to decorate one for Christmas. They’re tall and gnarled and appear to have more bark than leaves. And they thrive in conditions most other living things can’t – found above 5500 feet they can endure high winds and freezing temperatures.
When I visited, the forest had already received its first snowfall and, in fact, I made it just before the road closed for the winter. Speaking of the road…
Before visiting I had a feeling it would an adventure because the route showed lots of twists and turns and, although it was near my current location in Bishop, it would take over an hour and a half to get there. I hit the road and within 30 minutes made it to the entrance of the national forest. I thought, surely, the GPS was wrong and looked forward to getting to the grove in a matter of minutes. Boy was I wrong. What followed was a steep, mountainous road that, inexplicably, had no guardrails. After another nerve wracking hour I finally made it to the visitor’s center and already started dreading the return trip down the mountain.
The visitor’s center was already closed for the season but there were still plenty of folks enjoying the trails. As it had snowed several were iced over and, as I had left my hiking boots at home, I had limited options for trekking.
Now, here’s where I have to admit that I did not see the Methuselah tree. The park service leaves it unmarked so that it’s not disturbed and instead offers a trail to the general area. If you complete the trail you’ll probably have seen it but there’s no way of knowing. I’m pretty sure I didn’t see it because I couldn’t complete the trail due to the aforementioned ice but I’m ok with that. Bristlecone pines as a whole are fascinating and I saw several of them.
And if you’re wondering why they’re called bristlecones you only need to look at their pinecones.
Those bristles are where they get their name.
All too soon it was time to leave the forest and face the treacherous drive down the mountain which, clearly, I survived. It may have taken a couple of decades but I finally made it to see the world’s oldest trees and it was just as wonderful as I thought it would be.